When we see the word “widow” in the Bible, our minds often go to a host of images and ideas: Vulnerable. Without power. Outside the traditional system of household economy. Object of pity, and hopefully charity. “Widow” often serves as a scriptural shorthand for “the least of these.”
But widows are not just spiritual symbols. We may remember famous widows such as Naomi, who ultimately thrived thanks to her daughter-in-law and their combined resourcefulness and pluck. Or we may hear the clink of two copper coins in the temple treasury, eliciting the praise of Jesus, in a story my friend Michael Kirby calls “The Widow’s Might.”
This week’s lectionary pairs two texts about widows, both involving a widow’s son who is gravely ill and is revived through the words and touch of a prophet. For a widow, the death of a son is more a matter of deep parental grief—though surely it that. Without a husband, a widow must rely on a male child for security; without that male child, the widow is even more vulnerable.
Jesus’ encounter with the widow at Nain stems from the compassion he has for her; Elijah’s encounter with the widow at Zarephath, our focus in this piece, provides a longer and more nuanced tale.
We meet Elijah fresh from his run-in with Ahab, in which he has pronounced a drought in the land as punishment for Ahab’s devotion to Baal. God tells Elijah to find a widow and ask her to feed him. Thus Elijah moves from the palace (a place of power and faithlessness) to the widow’s house (a place of powerlessness and faith).
At least, that’s the shift we’re expecting.
But there’s a problem: the widow doesn’t respond with the same faithful readiness that folks who’ve had a chat with the Almighty often do in scripture. As I read this story, I am expecting the widow to take one look at Elijah, throw open her doors, and set an extra place at the table with that classic hospitality that’s so renowned in the Ancient Near East. I read this text recalling statistics about how the poor give a greater percentage of their incomes than the wealthy. I remember hoary old tales of folks in the developing world killing and roasting their last chicken to feed the white Westerners visiting on a mission trip.
I expect the widow to drop everything and prepare what little she has for the traveling holy man. But she doesn’t do that.
She offers Elijah a drink of water, but in terms of sustenance, she protests—she has nothing to share. She only has enough for her and her son, a final bitter, poignant meal before hunger finally overtakes them. It is a heart-rending prospect. The woman reminds me of Hagar in the wilderness, who was also faced with the imminent death of her son. And I remember the story a colleague told me about a woman she knew in Kenya. The woman had already lost her husband to AIDS, and was herself growing sicker and sicker. One of her last acts before she lost her strength was to teach her own daughter how to bury her.
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This widow leads me to wonder about the so-called “deserving” poor, and the ways people in poverty are expected to jump through various hoops, whether it’s demanding drug tests before people receive their welfare checks or proposing we cut food assistance to families whose children aren’t succeeding in school. Here, a prophet asks a widow with almost nothing left to serve him, and she rebuffs him. Part of me wants to cheer for this final burst of feisty dignity.
Ultimately, of course, the woman does what Elijah asks, but the terms of the deal have shifted. Whereas the focus in the first part of the story is on Elijah’s hunger alone, the miraculous outcome feeds not just Elijah but the widow and her household. There is enough for everyone. The widow is neither docile servant to Elijah nor passive recipient of charity—she is a participant in the divine justice that flows forth.
But then the woman’s son falls ill and is near death. That a holy man of God is under her roof is no comfort to the woman; she wants her son. She protests: “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” The message is clear: How could you let this happen?!
As a minister of the gospel, I cannot bring ailing boys back to life—how I wish I could. But this story convicts me that while I am called to offer presence and a message of grace to people hungering for wholeness and justice, presence and eloquent words are not enough. This widow would surely offer an “Amen” to James when he wrote, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Elijah is not off the hook simply because the jars of meal and oil have not run out. He must do all he can for the continued well-being of her son.
The Hebrew word for “widow” resembles the word meaning “to be mute.” The connection suggests that widowhood creates a sort of social muteness. But this widow is anything but voiceless. She stands up for herself. She makes her needs known. She becomes an active agent in her own life.
The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is pastor of Idylwood Presbyterian Church, a small and growing congregation in Falls Church, VA. She is a writer of numerous articles and essays, and the author of Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family’s Experiment with Holy Time through Chalice Press. The book has been featured on PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and in Publishers Weekly, and was named a “must read for 2013” by Ministry Matters.